Tuesday 13 November 2012

First 8 of 20 sonnets from a sequence by Dèr Mouw - NEW VERSION

Long since, when I was still in infancy,
I thought: If I’m not wicked any more
and learn my lessons when at school, I’m sure
‘a child beloved by God’ is what I’ll be.

And when I come to die – I thought – I’ll end
up finding with our Dear Lord in the sky
all those I love who find themselves on high,
my father and my mother and my friend.

Above the old sideboard in our drawing-room
hung such a lovely portrait from a thread:
a mother sleeping – tired out, I assumed;

beside her lies a dead child in the bed;
an angel hangs there; how I didn’t know;
and lifts the child to heaven from below.

Thus would I go to heaven, late or soon,
be given wings white as a butterfly;
and through the air I’d fly so fast, so high,
faster than birds do; higher than the moon;

and maybe I’d on Sundays get to stand
close to the throne of God, at Gabriel’s side,
which Jesus would approve: he’d know I’d tried
to do my very best at school, as planned.

And then they’d sing a hymn of praise for sure;
but what if it was very bright or more
so very close to God – all Sunday long –

I was afraid I’d find such light too strong.
But green is good for the eyes: a piece of glass
was held in front of them, there, green as grass.

But – there was one thing not so nice, I found:
I knew a print in which a negro flew,
a white man cradled in his arms. And you
saw light high up; down under was the ground.

Would he too be an angel? With that gob?
And gruesome white that quite suffused his eye?
I hoped that grandma’d got it wrong and I
would not have him too standing next to God.

Said grandma – I can still hear her sweet voice –:
The skin was nothing; God just read your heart;

if that was good, then you would be His choice;
He did not tell the blacks and whites apart.

And so I saw He was not one to choose –
the dead were equal: people, negroes, Jews.

Those Jews – I mean, they were a right queer lot.
And ugly too; they nearly all looked messes.
And so flamboyant! Bright red tartan dresses
the girls would put on, not on Sundays, but

on Saturdays. And it was just plain truth –
someone had seen them – that they throw their dead
straight down the stairs with no trace of regret
when death comes on the Sabbath. That’s uncouth.

A Jew boy at our school – called Koos – had said
he’d give me a gold watch, why I can’t tell.

Back home they laughed since I believed him. Well:
he said he would, but didn’t. That was bad.

I couldn’t wish for heaven to be due them.
You never know, though – Jews are also human.

For Saturdays, I wished I’d been a Jew:
we had dictation then, and Koos was let
off writing, and gazed round till teacher said
‘Koos can go now!’ and jealously I’d view

him leave with his pedantic laugh and walk
off very slowly. Once a classmate, riled,
since it was sunny, called out ‘Jew!’ That’s vile.
‘Jew!’ ‘Papist!’ – that’s no proper way to talk.

The gold watch, well, that was a dirty game:
he’d promised it. That simply wasn’t done.

But when he heard this, he knew he’d been blamed,
and blushed, and slunk off quietly on his own.

Were I a Jew like him, I thought ashamed,
he wouldn’t need to leave like that, alone.

Sunday came always like a celebration;
or rather: Saturday was when it started.
Once Koos, around eleven, had departed
we’d lark, and teacher said: in all creation

no school’s had such unruly, fractious minds
(he spoke just like a book). And worst of all:
that liquorice – more like some cattle stall
such chewing, even beasts were more refined.

Then though, he told us tales sure to entice,
of hunts for lions, wolves, and savage boars

– along the wall a sun’s ray would be gliding –
of lands where robbers lurked on foreign shores.

Outside, the clank of buckets. Droplets sliding
down window casings. – Classroom paradise!

We prayed before each dinner that the food
be blessed by ‘God who all of life doth feed’,
and ‘from whose gentle hand we have received’
what us ‘sustaineth in its plenitude’.

He gave the sun, and, if needs be, the rain;
and if we piously did as we should,
were quick to learn and always kind and good,
throughout life’s journey he would us sustain.

And you spoke softly after having prayed:
as if some fine, some wondrous thing apart

hovered above that table neatly laid;
and I was grateful then with all my heart,

that we sat there so peaceful and devout –
not Mondays though, when we had sauerkraut.

The universe God’s wise love had created:
with spring, to go with flowering apple trees;
and luscious grass, so cattle might be sated,
He made for them – for us swedes and green peas,

pigs for their ham and bacon, sheep for wool,
and cows for butter, cheese, milk, bones and meat;
where cities are, He filled the rivers full;
He saved on sunlight when we are  asleep.

He made the stars, so honest merchants on
intrepid journeys got to where they should;
He made small oranges, cloves, cinnamon,

iron for the plough, for building houses wood,
made zinc for water pipes to save on buckets
and gold for making watches, rings and ducats.

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